Saturday, February 9, 2013

Paul Duguid "Material Matters: The Past and Futurology of the Book”

Many vague things that I’ve thought about proclamations of the death of the book were put into words by Duguid in this article.  As I understand his project, Duguid wants to debunk the myths surrounding “the death of the book” by both historicizing them and viewing them from a materialist perspective.  In support of this project, he makes use of Walter Benjamin’s concept of accumulative history (the “Angel of History” who moves backwards into the future, facing its trail of rubbish) and Raymond Williams’ emphasis on how the material world and the social world interact with each other (the “social-material complex”). 

In particular, Duguid debunks the myths of “supersession”—the idea that the new replaces the old—and “liberation”—the idea that what is new gives us less restricted access than what is old.  Duguid points out that supersession often acts as a marketing ploy, but I think that liberation does as well.  This makes sense to me because every time someone announces the death of some outdated technology (and the subsequent rise of a new one), I always think it sounds like an infomercial.  Yes, folks, the new Food Processor X will replace all of your old cooking devices because it gives you more of what you really want, and faster, and frees you from all those old, slow, difficult methods.  But people didn’t start throwing out their stoves and conventional ovens when microwaves appeared.   At least not in most contexts.  

Besides commodity capitalism, another source of this unwarranted optimism about new technology which Duguid traces is postmodernism itself: the way it cuts off the past and offers a “seamless” narrative of history except for the seam “which often falls just behind the claimant” (71).  But as he argues, this method of history leads to making discoveries about the present that are only radical if you don’t know the past.  “A skepticism we have been led to believe characteristic of the postmodern reader was, it seems, evident even at the start of the enlightenment project” (70). 

This criticism seems apt, but I also wonder if there are other driving factors behind the-death-of-the-old-and-the-birth-of-the-new that Duguid doesn’t consider.  Are there other myths besides supersession and liberation?  I also notice that Duguid’s critique seems to vacillate between moments that are in favor of historical metanarratives and moments that are not. 

Duguid also emphasizes the fact that books are not simply containers but also producers of information.  He conceptualizes contemporary proclamations of book-death as misunderstandings of what books promise as a technology and have come to mean over time socially.  In the fifth section of his article “Future Concerns,” he discusses what effects the changes in technology (demassification and dematerialization) are having on social organization—a trend toward individuation and separation. 

Then, he makes a move that I understand in theory, but not in what he actually writes.  He traces a “predecessor” to hypertext to show that it’s not as new and radical as people think.  His predecessor is the bookkeeping practices of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century merchants, which give rise (he claims—via Habermas) to newspapers and journals (emphasis his) that attempted to collect the kinds of information that merchants were interested in and make it available in a “disinterested” way to the public (a “disinterested” way that would earn money).  Duguid emphasizes the difference between the interested and private bookkeeping accounts and the disinterested and public newspapers.  For him, the bookkeeper’s products were more like hypertext because they were personalized and private collections of information.  In other words, he reads hypertext as a reversion away from a world which benefits from the existence of the public sphere. 

On my part, I was confused in this section by how Duguid made his steps from one thought to the next.  I’m pretty sure his point was that the content and social effects of account registers and hypertext information are similar, but he’s pulled them out of time in a way that allows him to read hypertext as a reversion and not as a potential further rotation of a cycle that will come back around to something like the public sphere (which he seems to favor anyway).   This is a spot where his critique is both against and in favor of historical narratives of technology.  Also, why aren’t newspapers a kind of hypertext?  They have those links where the front page articles get cut off.  And hypertexts can be made public via the internet.  Or maybe I have that wrong—perhaps the internet is a kind of hyperlinked public sphere.  Don’t ask me to sort that one out. 

But in general, I was also occasionally confused by the way that Duguid doesn’t articulate what he means by “book.”  He talks about newspapers, journals, registers, novels, and hypertext, but what does he think people mean when they say “book”?  Are they thinking about novels?  (Because he makes interesting use of Hugo throughout the text.)  I think that an answer to this question is probably present in his text, but the fact that he doesn’t foreground it adds to the confusion surrounding what it means to say that the book is dying.  The material form and the textual content of the book—though certainly interdependent—appear to default more to the material. 

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